One of the last surviving Soviet tank operators to liberate the Auschwitz death camp died on Saturday at the age of 98.
David Dushman drove his tank through the camp’s fence after it was abandoned by the retreating German army in January 1945.
The war veteran, who was Jewish, was later seriously hurt in the battle for Berlin and had part of his lung removed.
He went on to become a fencing champion and trained Olympic medal winners for the Soviet Union, but he was never able to come to terms with the sight that greeted him at Auschwitz.
“When we arrived, we saw the fence and these unfortunate people, we broke through the fence with our tanks. We gave food to the prisoners and continued,” he recounted in an interview last year.
“They were standing there, all of them in (prisoner) uniforms, only eyes, only eyes, very narrow – that was very terrible, very terrible.”
Asked why it had happened, he was lost for words.
“I’m not a politician, it’s hard for me to say,” he said.
“Of course it’s completely incomprehensible.”
Thomas Bach, a German national and fellow fencer who went on to become president of the International Olympic Committee, said he was deeply saddened by Dushman’s death.
“When we met in 1970, he immediately offered me friendship and counsel, despite Mr Dushman’s personal experience with World War II and Auschwitz, and he being a man of Jewish origin,” Bach said.
“This was such a deep human gesture that I will never ever forget it.”
More than 1.1 million men, women and children, most of them Jewish, died at Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi extermination centres.
One of just 69 men in his 12,000-strong column of tanks to survive the war, Dushman was seriously wounded and he had to have part of one lung removed, but it did not stop him becoming a professional fencer.
He recalled: “I couldn’t walk at all because I got out of breath. I started … I made up my own workout routing for one minute per day.
“So very, very gradually, slowly, slowly I reached a point where in 1951 I became the champion of Russia (in fencing).”
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